Author: Meltha
Rating: PG-13
Spoilers: Through all seven books
Summary: Hermione embarks on the tale of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" while Harry is feeling discouraged.
Disclaimer: All characters are owned by J. K. Rowling, a wonderful author whose characters I have borrowed for a completely profit-free flight of fancy. Kindly do not sue me, please, as I am terrified of you. Thank you.

The Twelve Dancin(cerely Madder Than Hares)g Princesses

The days were starting to blend together for Harry. At the moment, he thought they were somewhere in Cornwall, but he wasn't completely sure. One vacant, lonely spot was starting to seem much like another, and he had no idea where they would be tomorrow, only that it would be somewhere else, and that place still wasn't likely to offer up a Horcrux or a way of destroying the locket. He felt as though he were trapped in a revolving door, always circling past the same place again and again, never able to step out into the world. It was bloody depressing.

"Are there any chips left, Hermione?" Ron asked hopefully.

Well, yes, Harry thought. There was that. They'd managed to cadge some fish and chips from a stand in a nearby town, and while the fish wasn't anywhere near hot when they'd finally been able to eat it, the mere fact it was food at all was wonderful.

"I don't think so," Hermione said, carefully looking through the oily paper sack. "Even the burnt bits at the bottom are gone.

"Ah well, you can't have everything," he said, leaning back on the old couch and patting his stomach.

Harry just looked at the pair of them, drew a deep breath, and sighed.

"You seem glum, mate," Ron said. "Feeling all right?"

"Not especially," Harry admitted. "I'd say I was homesick, but, well, I don't have a home."

He gave a half-hearted smile, attempting to hide the bitterness of the words by pretending it was a joke, and shrugged.

"Harry," Hermione said, sitting in the chair across from him, "you do know that Ron's family and mine wouldn't let you go homeless when this is all over, don't you?"

"What?" Ron said, looking up from the empty chips sack that he'd been attempting to rummage through in a vain hope Hermione had missed something. "Oh, right. Yeah, Harry, you know you've always got an open invitation at Mum and Dad's."

"And that goes for my parents too," Hermione said, then paused before adding, "well, if I ever get the chance to restore their memories and they come home from Australia, that is."

Harry gave them both a smile, but it wasn't the same. It wasn't as though the Dursleys' house had ever actually been a home, but it had been a spot where he hadn't been a guest—though an unwanted intruder, maybe. He'd even thought of going back to Grimmauld Place when this was all over since he did technically own it. If the Order still needed it, he could just kip in one of the little upstairs bedrooms for a while. After all, he'd certainly slept in smaller spots. But Sirius's old home didn't have many happy memories in it, and he wasn't sure he could forget enough of the bad ones to be comfortable there.

"Thanks," Harry said, but he could tell by their reactions that they knew he wasn't feeling any better, so he quickly added, "really, I mean, I appreciate it a lot."

"You're just upset is all," Hermione said.

"Aren't we all?" Ron said as he tossed the chip bag over his shoulder hopelessly.

"You do realize I'm not picking that up," Hermione said, narrowing her eyes.

"So? Let it rot," Ron said with a shrug. "Anyway, I think a story would cheer Harry up. Have you got something?"

"Please," Hermione said.

"Please what?" Ron asked, looking confused.

"Have you got something, please," Hermione said, laying heavy stress on the last word.

"Have I got what?" Ron said, still looking completely baffled.

"Oh, for Merlin's sake," Hermione grumbled. "Fine, fine, you want a story? I'll give you a story. Might as well since that appears to be all I'm considered good for."

"Bit put out, isn't she?" Ron muttered to Harry, but he didn't especially feel like pointing out the obvious once again for his friend. Harry was beginning to despair of Ron ever getting a clue as to what he was doing. He certainly hadn't been this shy last year with Lavender, more's the pity.

"I think I'll tell you the tale of 'The Twelve Dancing Princesses,'" Hermione said, and while she was obviously still highly annoyed with Ron, Harry noticed that she didn't really seem reluctant about her role as storyteller.

"Okay," Ron said, smiling pleasantly and nodding towards Harry. "Sounds good, eh?"

"Fine," Harry said, staring at a worn spot on the sofa where the stuffing was poking through and feeling listless.

"Okay then," Ron said, a note of panic in his voice. "Let's give this a shot."

"Once upon a…," Hermione began.

"Time," Ron chimed in, but he was still looking at Harry with concern.

"Yes," Hermione agreed, "in a kingdom far away, there lived a king who had twelve beautiful daughters."

"Uh-huh, that's…," Ron started to say off-handedly before he was brought up short. "Did you say he had twelve daughters?"

"Yes," Hermione said. "It is rather a lot, I suppose."

"A lot? When a family makes mine look tiny, that's enormous! That's nearly double the number of kids Mum and Dad have! How would they feed them all?"

"Well, he is a king," Hermione said.

"Oh, right," Ron said. "I suppose that really wouldn't be an issue. Probably has money by the roomful. Probably has it spun out of straw by creepy dwarfs or innocent maidens or something. Or maybe he has his daughters spin it. That'd be a profitable business if you could manage it, which of course you can't since it isn't possible in the first place, but then when has that ever stopped one of these paragons of confusion?"

"Actually, money is more of an issue in this story than you might think," Hermione said. "The daughters' mother had died."

"Or maybe she just ran out the front door and never came back, especially if a whole gaggle of them hit puberty at once," Ron said. "Can't say I'd blame her really."

"Well, that's not what happened," Hermione said with a resigned sigh, "though if you want to pretend it, I suppose it's a free country. Or it was at any rate."

"And will be again, right?" Ron said stoutly, glancing at Harry, who still looked exhausted. "Ehm, yeah, right. So, Dad's got twelve daughters. I don't suppose any of them have names, by the way?"

"Oh, ehm, no," Hermione said, obviously startled. Harry suspected she had been gauging his reaction to Ron's statement as well. "None of the versions of the story that I've read actually give them names."

"As there's twelve of them," Ron said, "I suppose we could name them after the months of the year going from oldest to youngest for convenience's sake. Say, it'd be something if there really was one born in each month. Good planning, that."

"I suppose so, though usually there's at least one set of twins in the mix," Hermione said.

"Oh, that's easy to fix" Ron said with a wave of his hand. "Fred and George were both born on the first of April, you know. Well, if Fred had been just a little less tardy, he would have been born on the last of March, so they would have had different months for their birthdays. I don't see why a pair of these girls couldn't have pulled it off."

Hermione raised her eyebrows, but she looked intrigued. Even Harry had to admit it was odd to think that the twins were very nearly born in different months.

"I suppose they could have at that," she said. "In any case, the king had a very great problem when it came to his daughters."

"I'd guess with twelve of them he had a jolly assortment of problems to pick from," Ron said with a grin. "Probably one of them is a drama queen, another pinches things from the local market, a third is always tying up the loo, and someone must have been having a sulking fit and not talking for days while her poor dad tries to figure out what he said wrong. Ginny did that once."

Harry had the distinct impression that Ron was baiting him to respond by bringing up his sister, but he decided to go along with it anyway and asked, "Really? What happened?"

"Oh, it turned out Percy had said something about no real Quidditch fan wanting to watch a match with the Holyhead Harpies because they were all girls, and then he'd gone on to quote a bunch of statistics and biology and stuff about why blokes are better flyers than girls are," Ron said.

In spite of himself, Harry couldn't fight a small smile.

"What spell did she hit him with?" he asked.

"That was the beginning of her legendary Bat Bogey Hex," Ron said respectfully. "I think it took her the better part of two weeks to suss out the details on it, and she really was just insufferable the whole time."

"I don't blame her," Hermione said, shifting her feet around so they were curled next to her on the couch. "Percy can be a bit of a prat."

"A bit? That's generous. I'd say it's more like he's very rarely a bit human, and the rest of the time he's a complete prat," Ron said.

"Well, lately, I'd have to say I agree with you," Hermione admitted. "However, the king's problem with his daughters was a great deal stranger than the usual adolescent difficulties."

"And that would be?" Ron asked.

"Shoes," Hermione said.

Even Harry reacted to this one. Of all the things she could have said, that wouldn't have been in the top thousand.

"Shoes," Ron said, nodding as though that were perfectly normal. "Okay, so, we've had a mermaid who trades her tail for feet and winds up bleeding all over her shoes. Then we've had Ashyweeper, who loses one shoe and marries a dunderheaded moron who can't recognize her without said shoe. Oh and that shoe, which is glass of all ridiculous things, winds up filled with clotted gore from her step-mum's attempts at impromptu Muggle foot surgery. We mustn't forget Puss and his boots as well, of course, because what cat doesn't want a lovely pair of trainers to go dashing about in, and then there's dear old Elisha, who could have used a nice pair of shoes so her feet didn't bleed as she was trodding razor-sharp nettles underfoot. Shoes. Of course. Makes perfect sense. What sort of painful foot mutilation are we in for this time?"

Harry couldn't help it. He had to smile at Hermione's reaction of ill-disguised horror.

"Ehm, none," Hermione said, wrinkling her nose delicately. "I suppose you do have a point, but the problem was just that the girls were each wearing great holes through the soles a pair of dancing slippers every night, and no one could figure out how since they were locked into their bedroom in a high tower each night."

"Pajama party," Ron said, nodding. "They probably were staying up late every night listening to the wireless and dancing about to the Weird Sisters or something."

"No, they were not," Hermione said. "They simply went to bed each night, and no sound at all came from the room until morning, when their shoes were found to be quite worn through."

"No sound at all?" Ron asked. "In a dormitory full of teenage girls, that's even more suspicious than the shoe thing."

"As if teenage boys wouldn't be up until all hours chattering away," Hermione said.

"Less likely," Ron said with a shrug. "After the first month or two, most conversations in our dormitory boiled down to 'Oi! Anyone seen my toothbrush!'"

"Fascinating," Hermione said, looking as though she meant just the opposite.

"Well, what did you lot talk about?" Ron asked, shooting Harry a sly look.

"Lots of things," Hermione said vaguely. "Lessons, homework, politics, plans for future careers…"

"Not to mention boys, make-up, fashion magazines," Ron continued the list on his fingers. "Oh, and probably shoes. Which brings us back to the story, yeah?"

"As if you lot don't spend all your spare time discussing Quidditch," she sniffed, but she continued on. "The shoes for the princesses were slowly bankrupting the kingdom."

"Seriously? They're shoes. How poor is this kingdom, anyway?" Ron asked.

"But think of it logically, Ron," Hermione said reasonably. "There are twelve princesses, and each princess is ruining a pair of shoes every night. Inside of one month, they're going through anywhere from 336 to 372 pairs of shoes, depending upon whether it's a 28, 30, or 31 day month. Multiply that into a year and the king has to buy 4,380 pairs of shoes, unless it's a leap year, in which case he's stuck with a bill for 4,392. At the rather paltry price of a couple sickles each pair, that's 515 galleons and 5 sickles for shoes per year, or 516 galleons and 12 sickles for a leap year. Even for a relatively affluent small country, that's a significant drain on financial resources, and if the shoes were more expensive, say in the region of two galleons each, which certainly wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility for a pair of embroidered silk dancing slippers meant for a princess, well, the price would be nothing short of absolute bankruptcy."

Hermione said nothing as Ron and Harry proceeded to stare at her in open-mouthed disbelief.

"What?" she said.

"Did you just mentally calculate the price of the princesses' shoes for a full year using the wizarding banking standard… in your head?" Ron asked, sounding slightly terrified.

"I've been taking Arithmancy for years now," Hermione said, trying not to look too pleased. "It's not so hard."

"Blimey, it must be loud in your head," Ron said. "How do you sleep?"

"I find that calculating pi to a few hundred places helps me drift off," Hermione said, and Harry wasn't entirely sure if she was having them on or not. "In any case, the king wanted the mystery of the ruined shoes solved."

"I would bloody well think so," Ron said. "That many shoes makes Imelda Marcos look thrifty."

"How on earth do you know about Imelda Marcos and her shoes?" Hermione asked.

"Please," Ron said, looking insulted. "There wasn't any female, whether Muggle, Muggle-born, pureblood, squib, or otherwise who didn't hear about that collection and water at the mouth. Even Mum."

Harry gave Ron a slug on the shoulder and laughed, though truthfully he recalled Aunt Petunia having exactly the same reaction. Apparently, some things really did cross all lines of culture.

"Well, the king wasn't at all happy with his daughters' shoe collection, and he issued a proclamation to the whole kingdom," Hermione said.

"Those rarely end well," Ron said.

"Anyone who could solve the mystery of the shoes could choose one of the daughters as his wife and become the next king," Hermione said.

"Wait… how old are these girls?" Ron asked. "I mean, let's say good old January at the head of the line is twenty-four or so. What's December going to be?"

"Logically, maybe thirteen or fourteen at the oldest, provided there's just the one set of twins," Hermione said. "Of course the firstborn might have been older, but in these stories the legitimate age of marriage for most girls is almost over with by the time they're twenty-five or so, unless of course they're a widow marrying a previously widowed man, like with Cinderella's step-mother."

"Yeah, so the whole lot of them turn evil when they hit twenty-six apparently," Ron said, "but regardless of that, what if some pervy git shows up and figures it out and wants to marry the poor little thirteen-year-old? That's just wrong, that is."

"It's a foolish agreement, certainly," Hermione agreed. "Granted, some royalty did marry extremely young in the old days, but even so, he's being very stupid."

"Yeah, stupid," Ron said firmly. "Okay, so what happened to yet another idiot of a father and his shoe-obsessed daughters?"

"Several suitors tried to find out the mystery, but of course, they couldn't be permitted to stay in the princesses' bedroom all night as that wouldn't be proper," Hermione said. "Instead, they had to stand outside the locked door and try to deduce what was happening."

"Uh-huh, wouldn't want anything that smacked of impropriety before some strange man marries the youngest kid," Ron said, looking very stormy.

"It's the usual obsession with preservation of female chastity," Hermione said, sounding rather huffy. "Women have to be kept locked up so that there can't be any possibility of, ehm, physical intermingling with the genders."

"Either that or the dad didn't want some unknown weirdo hanging around his daughters' bedroom in the middle of the night," Harry said.

Hermione tipped her head to the side, considering.

"Alright, maybe he isn't entirely an idiot, then," Hermione conceded.

"Say, what are your mum and dad going to say when they find out you've been gallivanting around the countryside with a pair of boys without a chaperone for months?" Ron asked.

"Considering we're trying to save civilization as we know it, I think they'll handle the situation fairly well," Hermione said with a dry smile, "particularly as there hasn't been any sort of fraternization."

Harry could almost swear he heard her murmur "damn it," but he might have imagined it simply because he was so sure she was thinking it.

"In any case, the people who attempted the feat were always unable to come up with an answer, and then they were executed," Hermione said.

"Wait, what?" Ron and Harry said in tandem.

"Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that bit. If the challenger wasn't able to figure out what was happening after three nights, his head was chopped off and the next person took over," Hermione said.

"Just a little thing to slip your mind," Ron said, goggling at her. "Blimey, you'd have to be pretty desperate to try that."

"Or mental," Harry added.

"Six of one," Ron said, nodding.

"Still, in spite of that, many young men did try their luck, and without exception, each one was executed," Hermione said. "After a while, very few new suitors appeared, and the kingdom continued to wait, going slowly bankrupt."

"Couldn't the king just stop buying shoes?" Ron said.

"What, leave a princess wandering about barefoot?" Hermione said in mock horror. "What would the neighbors think?"

"Yeah, that was probably the only reason the Dursleys even gave me Dudley's castoffs. It would have looked bad if I'd been dressed like a House-elf," Harry said.

Ron rolled his eyes but shrugged.

"Then, one day, an old soldier made his way towards the kingdom. He was very poor, and he thought he had nothing to lose if he tried his luck," Hermione said.

"Wow, that's depressing," Ron said.

"Actually, it really is," Hermione agreed. "As he was travelling through the woods on his way to the castle—"

"What is it with these people and the woods?" Ron asked. "Are they trying to run into talking wolves with a penchant for cross-dressing or murderous witches in gingerbread houses or what?"

"Oh, no, it turns out quite well this time," Hermione said. "You see, he met an old woman as he went through the woods, and he shared the last of his supper with her because she was hungry."

"Well, that was nice of him at any rate," Harry said.

"Yes, and it turned out she wasn't just any old woman but a fairy," Hermione said.

"He's dead," Ron said to Harry. "That never ends well."

"You're forgetting that Muggles don't think of fairies like wizards do," Hermione said. "Instead, she told him, 'I know that you are going to the king's castle, so I give you two gifts and a piece of advice that, if you are wise, you will use. Do not eat or drink anything you are offered in the castle. The princesses will drug it to make you sleep.'"

"That's rotten of them," Ron said angrily.

"Maybe it is and maybe it isn't," Hermione said before resuming her croaky old woman voice. "'These two gifts will help you as well. First, here is a key that will unlock any door. Second, take this cloak that, when wrapped around you, will render you invisible to any eye.'"

"Hey! That sounds familiar!" Ron said.

"Yeah, it does," Harry agreed, becoming much more interested. "How old is this story, Hermione?"

"Oh, probably back to the 1500s or so," she said. "Why?"

"The International Statue of Wizarding Secrecy… when was that passed again?" Harry asked.

"In 1689," Hermione responded automatically, exactly as though she were in class.

"So the story predates it," Harry said. "Maybe some Muggles actually did know about the cloak, then."

"I suppose it's possible," Hermione said, tipping her head to one side and considering. "I mean, there are other cloaks of invisibility, of course, but none of them work like yours. Well, except for the one in Beedle. That really is odd."

"It is," Harry said, and while it wasn't a clue to a Horcrux, something about it made him feel a little less disconnected from what he was trying to do.

"Yeah, so the old soldier shares a bowl of split pea soup with the highly dangerous fairy, grabs the cloak and the key, and heads to the castle, right?" Ron said.

"Oh, yes," Hermione said, pulling herself back into the story. "He was treated quite well, probably because no one had volunteered for a while, and that evening he was stationed outside of the princesses' bedchamber. Just as the princesses were walking into their room for the night, the eldest sister turned to the man and offered him a cup, saying, 'You must indeed be thirsty. Here, drink this and be refreshed.'"

"That isn't fishy at all," Ron said, rolling his eyes. "So, what'd he do?"

"He pretended to take a drink, but really he threw it away without tasting it. Then the princesses went into their room, which was locked with nine deadbolts, and the soldier pretended to sleep, listening all the while for any sign that they were up to something," Hermione said.

"And?" Ron asked.

"And after a few minutes he heard them moving around the room," Hermione said. "He waited until all was still again, then he wrapped the cloak around himself and used the key to unlock the door. He crept quietly into the room, and there he saw something extremely strange."

"The birds were all sitting around with those green mucky masks on their faces and those spongy things in between their toes while they were reading the latest issue of Wizarding Teen Weekly?" Ron said.

"You say that as though you've seen it before," Hermione said, giving him a highly suspicious look.

"Ginny's had a sleepover birthday party or two," Ron said, trying to look innocent. "It's not my fault if they forgot to shut the door."

Harry was relatively sure Ron never saw the pillow coming that clocked him in the head so hard that it sent him to the floor.

"As I was saying," Hermione continued, barely having mussed a hair, "the soldier saw something very strange. The girls were indeed all gone, but a great door had appeared in the floor, like the entrance to a cellar, and a set of steps descended from it deep into the gloom below."

'Nobody noticed a trapdoor in the floor before?" Ron said. "Didn't half look hard, did they?"

"It had been hidden before and didn't appear until the right time," Hermione said.

"Hmm," Ron said, squeezing his face together in thought. "I suppose that could be some sort of Transfiguration spell on a timer or something. Pretty advanced stuff, though."

"Reminds me a bit of the door Fluffy was guarding in first year," Harry said, a ghost of smile crossing his face. "Remember?"

"Yeah," Ron said, sighing. "Those were the days. All we had to worry about were a three-headed dog, some flying keys, and that plant thing that almost ate us."

"And Quirrel," Hermione added.

"And Quirrel," Harry said, nodding. "You know, in retrospect, the turban really should have been a tipoff. That thing really stunk."

"Not to mention being a serious fashion faux pas," Ron said. "Besides, having a dark wizard growing out of the back of your head is so seven seasons ago."

Harry caught himself giggling, but he did feel a little better remembering how they'd been through so much before for so many years. It made now seem less terrifying.

"So did the soldier go down the stairs?" Ron asked.

"He certainly did, and it didn't take him long to catch up to the princesses, who were going along in a long line with the eldest at the front and the youngest at the back. At the base of the stairs, there was suddenly a great forest," Hermione said.

"In the basement?" Ron said.

"Yes, sort of," Hermione said. "Well, it was sort of in the basement, and sort of in a whole other world."

"That's one big castle, anyway," Ron said.

"But what was even more extraordinary was the forest wasn't a normal one at all. Instead, every tree's leaves were the purest silver shining under the moonlight," Hermione said.

"You mean they were silver colored?" Ron asked.

"No, I mean they were actual, literal silver," Hermione said.

"Be noisy, that," Ron said. "A good breeze comes along and those things are really going to be clattering away."

"It's supposed to be a romantic image, Ronald, obviously wasted on you," Hermione said. "The old soldier followed close behind the youngest sister, and at one point he accidentally trod upon her gown, making her cry out."

"Uh-oh," Ron said. "Not good."

"The oldest sister called out, 'What is wrong?' and the youngest responded, 'It felt just as though someone had stepped upon my dress!'" Hermione said.

"But there was no one there to be seen, right?" Ron said.

"Correct, and the oldest sister chided her for making them late when she had probably just snagged her petticoat on a fallen branch," Hermione said.

"Chided?" Ron said, giving her a look.

"It means she scolded her," Hermione explained.

"Yeah, I know that, but who ever says chided? That just seems a bit too posh," Ron said.

Hermione gave him a freezing look then plodded gamely on.

"The princesses continued through the forest, and the trees changed from the grove of silver trees to another that was full of trees whose leaves were made of gold," Hermione said.

"Okay, this is a very useful basement to have," Ron said. "Silver trees, then gold ones. All you'd have to do is grab a rake and rubbish sack and you'd be set for life in about three minutes."

"True, but things became even stranger," Hermione said, "for after that the forest changed again. At first the soldier thought that ice decorated each branch and winter had come, but he was wrong. The branches of the trees were covered in diamonds."

"Pretty. Sounds almost like an ice storm came through or something," Ron said.

"Yes, the writer might have seen one and based the idea off of that," Hermione agreed. "But soon the princesses came to the bank of a great, black lake and stood upon the bank expectantly, as though they were in a trance. The soldier waited in the shadows of the trees to see what would happen. Soon, out of the darkness, he could just make out twelve boats being rowed across the water towards them."

"I don't suppose there's a castle on the other side of the lake, is there?" Ron asked.

"Actually, yes, now that you mention it," Hermione said. "Why?"

"Taking boats across the lake at night to a castle? That doesn't sound familiar to you at all?" Ron asked.

Hermione and Harry both gasped.

"Blimey, Ron, that really does sound like how the First Years get to Hogwarts on their first night there," Harry said.

"Spookily similar," Ron said. "So each princess gets in a boat, I take it?"

"Yes," Hermione said, "and this is where the story goes two different ways. In one version, there's a handsome prince in each boat, and each prince rows a princess across the water."

"And in the other?" Ron asked.

"Each boat has a terrible demon in it acting as the oarsman," Hermione said.

"That's significantly less appealing," Ron said. "So what's our boy do?"

"He jumped into the boat of the youngest princess, and the oarsman of the boat found that he had to row much harder than usual to keep up with the others, but he couldn't figure out why," Hermione said.

"Probably thought she'd had too much to eat at dinner that night," Ron said.

"I doubt she could have eaten enough to explain the weight of a full grown man," Hermione said, rolling her eyes.

"Yeah, but the way girls talk, if they eat too much they feel guilty enough to think they did," Ron said.

"That's… actually that's probably true in some cases," Hermione said. "When they got to the other side of the lake, the princes or demons helped the princesses to disembark and took them into the brightly lit castle."

"Where they were Sorted," Ron said firmly.

"Where they began to dance," Hermione said. "There was an orchestra made up of instruments that played themselves, and the princesses whirled across the floor in dance after dance with their escorts, tune after tune, hour after hour without rest."

"And the soldier probably just stuck by the buffet table and the punch bowl, being a wallflower," Ron said.

"At long last, each of the princesses had worn a hole through the soles of her silk dancing slippers, and this was the cue for their partners to take them back to the boats and ferry them back across the lake," Hermione said.

"Their shoes were silk?" Ron asked.

"Or satin," Hermione said. "The stories go either way."

"That really doesn't seem sensible. You couldn't possibly wear a shoe with a silk sole for very long anyway. Even if they weren't going out dancing with demon princes all night every night, those shoes would still be falling apart every couple of days at the most."

"You know, that's a good point," Hermione said. "I hadn't really thought of that before."

"Now, if you wanted to try to get some shoes that would last, try a pair of those platform shoes Fleur wore last summer. It'd take a good fifty years to wear a hole in those things," Ron said.

"You noticed her shoes?" Hermione said, and Harry thought she sounded a little sharp.

"Ehm, well, who wouldn't with those things," Ron said, sounding a little embarrassed. "Harry, you noticed Fleur's shoes, didn't you?"

"Yes, absolutely," Harry lied immediately. He knew when his best friend was silently pleading with him for help. "Yeah, they were, um, great big tall things. Stood out a mile."

"I suppose they did," Hermione said, sounding like she didn't really believe him, then continued. "The soldier leapt into the youngest princess's boat once again, and then he followed the sisters back through the woods. When they got to the forest of the silver leaves, he plucked one small branch and hid it beneath his cloak. It seemed as though the youngest sister had heard something when he snapped the twig, for she looked up at once, her eyes searching through the shadows, but she saw nothing."

"It seems like the youngest one is the one who's paying the most attention," Ron said.

"I agree," Hermione said. "When at last they had climbed to the top of the stairs, the princesses exited once again into the bedroom, and they were so tired that when they lay down on their beds, they fell at once into a deep sleep, never noticing the door had been unlocked. As for the soldier, he managed to slip in behind the last sister just before the trapdoor closed silently. He stationed himself outside the door, locked it once more, and pretended to be asleep in the chair before the entrance to their chamber."

"Well, there's a lot of coincidences there, but considering they just came back from a forest full of silver, gold, and diamond trees where they did the Hokey Pokey with a bunch of possibly demonic princes, I'll let that slide," Ron said.

"The Hokey Pokey?" Harry said, staring at him. "How would you know about the Hokey Pokey of all things?"

"Why wouldn't I?" Ron asked, looking confused.

"Well, it's a Muggle dance, isn't it?" Harry said.

"It is?" Ron said, looking surprised. "Huh. I guess the Muggles stole it, then. That's an old wizarding dance, that is. It's probably based on the old incantation 'hocus pocus' and some sort of spell that involved arm and leg movements to cast it. No one's quite sure what outcome the original wizard who came up with it was going for, but somewhere along the way he decided it was just plain fun to do and went with it."

"Seriously?" Hermione said, looking stunned.

"Of course not!" Ron said, laughing. "I can't believe you fell for that one! No, Dean Thomas mentioned it once when McGonagall was teaching us to dance for the Yule Ball. I dared him to do it at the actual ball, but he said no. Too bad. Would have made a ruddy wonderful moment for Creevy to take a picture."

Harry practically choked he was laughing so hard, and Hermione rolled her eyes, sighed, and continued gamely on.

"The next morning, the princesses unlocked their bedroom door, and the eldest asked the soldier how he had fared. 'Well enough,' he said, and at this she frowned. The princesses went down to breakfast, and then, as was customary, the gardeners gave them their morning bouquets," Hermione said.

"They get flowers every morning?" Ron asked. "Bit weird that the king gets his knickers in a twist over shoes but hands out twelve bouquets of flowers a day like it's nothing, innit?"

"Not really," Hermione explained. "It would have been a custom among royalty or anyone who could afford it back then since, well, most Muggles didn't smell very pleasant. They only bathed once in a great while since it took rather a lot of work. They would have had to haul buckets of water inside and then warm it before it could be used, and then the bathwater was usually passed around to everyone in the family by order of age from oldest to youngest before it was dumped out."

"Ew," Ron and Harry chorused together.

"Yeah, I'm not sure which would be worse, smelling bad or getting to be ninth in line after eight other smelly people had already sat in the bathwater," Ron said.

"It wasn't a pleasant experience, I'm sure," Hermione said. "Added on to that, the soap they used probably smelled terrible, and the water was most likely pretty filthy to begin with. People didn't bathe much. In fact, many people thought it was unlucky to have a bath any time other than Christmas or Easter."

"Well, they must have been fresh as a daisy come Easter, what with having taken a bath only four months or so earlier," Ron said, "or however long the distance is between Christmas and Easter."

"It's the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox," Hermione said automatically, "ranging from March 22 to April 25."

Ron blinked.

"You're scary," he said.

"Thank you, I think," Hermione said. "Anyway, that was why people carried bouquets or wore perfume or pomanders full of ambergris or civet."

"Amber what and civic who?" Ron asked.

"Oh, they're both perfume-type things," Hermione said with a wave of her hand.
Ambergris is a substance in a whale's digestive tract, and civet, or more properly civetone, is a secretion from the civet cat's anal glands. Both are supposed to smell quite pleasant, but it's all highly cruel to the animals."

"So to smell better, they carried around whale poo and cat poo?" Ron said, looking green.

"While that's not entirely accurate biologically, you've got the general idea," Hermione said, "but our princesses were using bouquets."

"Yeah, well, that's better," Ron said, still looking ill. "Suddenly, I'm kind of glad we ran out of chips."

"Anyway, the soldier wrapped himself up in the invisibility cloak and carefully inserted the single twig from the silver forest into the bouquet of the youngest sister when the gardener wasn't looking," Hermione said.

"Uh-oh," Ron said, grinning. "Bet that didn't go down well with January through November."

"Actually, when the panicked youngest girl showed her oldest sister, instead of realizing the obvious fact that someone had followed them down to their secret castle, the eldest accused her of being careless and that she must have had a few leaves on her dress still that somehow fell into her bouquet, for nothing else could explain it," Hermione said.

Ron scrunched up his face again, then shook his head.

"Harry, any idea how that would work in any conceivable way at all?" Ron asked.

"It does seem like it would be pretty random," Harry said. "Then again, one time Dudley walked around for hours with a half-eaten lolly he'd forgot about sticking out of his back pocket. Finally, he sat on it at the dinner table and screamed blue murder when it poked him in the bum. It took Aunt Petunia half an hour to calm him down, and then I got sent to my cupboard because they thought I'd done it somehow."

"Yeah, well, from what you've told us in the past, after you went to Hogwarts they blamed you for the weather, the stock market, the aphids in the rosebushes, the price of petrol, and the Spice Girls," Ron said with a shrug. "All things considered, that's probably the least unlikely."

Hermione squinted for a moment, then shook her head.

"What?" Ron asked. "Trying to figure out whether that's really possible?"

"Oh, it's completely possible to do via a slightly tweaked summoning charm," Hermione said. "No, I was just trying to figure out if 'least unlikely' was a double negative or merely the reverse superlative form of the adverb. I think you're actually safe there."

"Oh, good," Ron said. "Forget Deatheaters. I'm really concerned about the Grammar Police breaking in and accusing me of crimes against the language. Anyway, Jan decides not to pay any attention to her kid sister's weird floral warning from the soldier, then what?"

"Jan?" Harry asked.

"Well, January's got to have a nickname, yeah?" Ron said logically. "I figure they're called Jan, Brewie, Mar, April and May are the twins, June gets a normal name too, then Julie, Gusty, Temmy, Toby, Nova, and Dessie."

Hermione stared at him.

"Gusty, Temmy, Toby, Nova, and Dessie?" she said slowly in disbelief.

"Hey, I didn't name the months of the year. Don't blame me," Ron said, grinning.

"I'll endeavor not to," Hermione said. "At any rate, that night, the exact same thing happened again. The soldier threw away the drink when no one was looking, feigned sleep, unlocked the door, and followed them through the three forests, across the lake, and to the enchanted castle. Once again as the princesses returned home, he broke a twig from a tree, this time in the forest of gold, and once again Dessie, damn, I mean the youngest sister heard him, though everyone thought she was making it up."

"Let me guess," Ron asked. "She gets the branch in her bouquet again."

"Exactly," Hermione said, "and this time the oldest sister took the threat more seriously. That night, when she brewed the potion to make him sleep…"

"Draught of Living Death," Ron interrupted her.

"Well, it could be," Hermione reasoned. "It doesn't seem quite that strong, though, since it only lasted a few hours. However, that wasn't what she poured the third night. Instead, she laced the wine with poison."

"Oi! That's cheating!" Ron said indignantly.

"I suppose so," Hermione said, "but of course, the soldier was far too clever to drink it. Once again he followed them under his cloak to the castle, but when they arrived, something quite different occurred."

"They decided to have a game of chess instead?" Ron asked.

Hermione gave him a withering look before continuing with, "No, the soldier watched the princesses dance with their partners again, but he decided to bring back a cup from the great feasting table in the hall as proof of what had happened. However, the moment he grasped its stem, a great rumbling was heard."

"Rumblings are rarely good things," Ron said.

"Quite. Suddenly, the castle began to fall to bits around them, and the princesses and their escorts and the hidden soldier ran for the boats as fast as they could," Hermione said.

"No small thing in shoes full of holes," Ron said. "Did they make it?"

"They did," Hermione said, nodding, "but they had to row as fast as they could for the forest bank because the castle was being pulled down into the water and creating a great whirlpool. No sooner had they set foot on dry land than the trees began to shake violently, falling to pieces around them. The soldier took one last branch from the diamond forest, which even the youngest did not hear in all the tumult, and the princesses raced with all speed back through the forest and up the great flight of stairs."

"What about the princes or demons or whatever they were?" asked Harry.

"They disappeared as soon as they returned the princesses to the forest," Hermione said.

"Apparated," Ron said knowingly. "They probably got their licenses already, but maybe none of the girls had passed the test yet."

"I… oh, maybe," Hermione said hopelessly. "In any case, no sooner had the last sister climbed the last step of the stairs, the soldier just on her heels, when a great crashing noise signaled that the whole underground kingdom had collapsed upon itself."

"What a waste," Ron said. "A whole country where money really did grow on trees. Too bad the Forbidden Forest around our castle doesn't have that."

"That we know of," Harry said, looking curious.

"Huh, yeah," Ron said. "I'm sure there's a whole load of stuff in there no one's ever seen, or at least seen and lived long enough to tell anyone about. Anyway, the princesses' little party looks like it's over. Then what?"

"Terrified by what they had seen, they fell down exhausted on their beds, and the soldier crept back outside once more, the branch and the cup hidden beneath his cloak." Hermione said.

Harry frowned, but he said nothing, holding his tongue as an idea started to form in his mind.

"The next morning, the king called for the soldier to come forward and explain the mystery or be executed," Hermione continued. "To the king's surprise, the soldier told the tale of the secret kingdom, the mysterious suitors, and the princesses who had danced holes in their slippers every night. As proof, he held up the golden cup, and he pointed to the bouquet of the youngest, saying, 'And within those flowers, you shall find a sprig of diamonds from the forest, just as there was one of silver and gold in the days before. I plucked them myself, just as I stole the cup, making the enchantment fall apart.'"

"Ha! Bet that went over well!" Ron said.

"The sisters admitted that it was all true, and of course this is where the story gets muddled between all the different versions again." Hermione said.

"Of course," Ron said. "They always do."

"In some, the princesses had been under an enchantment the whole time and were unable to tell anyone what was happening until someone broke the spell. Sometimes their escorts were real princes who were under a similar enchantment. None of the versions of the story that I've read explains who worked the enchantment or why, though," Hermione said.

"Oh, that's easy," Ron said, waving his hand airily. "It was the old woman the soldier met in the forest, the one with the cloak, the key, and the advice. She was probably just a bored fairy, and after she'd had enough fun, she gave him the chance to undo it. They don't really need much of a reason, or any, if it gets down to it."

"You know, that's extremely logical," Hermione said. "If the fairy is behind it, the story would come full circle then, and the loose ends would pretty much all be tied up. That's very, very good Ron."

"It's nothing," he said, though Harry noticed he was blushing a bit.

"Well, in the versions where there was an enchantment, the princes, as punishment for dancing with the princesses every night, have to spend as many nights in jail as they did dancing," Hermione said.

"That's a bit harsh as they were under a spell too," Ron said.

"Imperius curse," Harry muttered, looking up suddenly.

Hermione's hands went to her mouth as she gasped.

"Oh, Harry! You're right! Even think of when Crouch first showed us the spell! He made the spider—"

"Dance," Ron finished, looking a little terrified. "Blimey, that is really disturbing."

All three of them shuddered for nearly a full minute before Hermione continued.

"Yes, well, the soldier is asked which of the princesses he wants to marry," Hermione said.

"Well, obviously, it's the youngest," Ron said. "Disgusting, that."

"No, actually, in almost every story he asks for the oldest, saying he's getting on in years and she would match him best," Hermione said.

"Okay, I did not see that one coming," Ron said. "So he picked Jan over Dessie, even though she tried to kill him. I suppose all things considered that's pretty decent of him."

"Except, of course, that no one asked her if she wanted to marry him," Hermione pointed out.

"True, but it's still better than having him marry some little kid," Ron said.

"Well, put that way, I see your point," Hermione said. "Then, well, the story can end a couple different ways. In both, the soldier marries the princess and is next in line to throne."

"But?" Ron prompted.

"Well, in some, that's it, and he lives in the castles with the other sisters until they eventually are married off, many of them to the suitors they had danced with at the castle," Hermione said.

"I'm guessing that's the versions where the princes aren't great ugly demons or something," Ron said.

"Yeah, that wouldn't make for the most picturesque ending," Harry said.

"No," Hermione agreed. "You're right. That's only in the versions where the princes were human. In the others, where they were demons, the king has the other eleven daughters executed in the place of the soldier."

"What?!" Ron and Harry both said.

"That outrageous!" Ron said, really upset. "If they really were under the Imperius, then it wasn't their ruddy fault! He just outright kills Brewie through Dessie?"

"Yes," Hermione said, "it's supposed to be just punishment for the other suitors who tried to find out their secret and were killed for it."

"Well, I should have known there was going to be something particularly nasty sooner or later," Ron said grimly. "At least no one ate anybody in this one. Wait, did I miss that bit?"

"No, there isn't any cannibalism that I'm aware of in it, latent or otherwise," Hermione said.

"Suddenly I'm not grudging the sisters their little nightly parties so much," Ron said. "So, what'd you think, Harry?"

"I think I want to know if the golden cup ever wound up belonging to Helga Hufflepuff," Harry said.

Hermione and Ron both looked at him with their mouths hanging open.

"That would be one big coincidence," Ron said.

"Or maybe the world has a lot more coincidences than we give it credit for," Hermione said, and they were all silent for several moments.

"Dangling preposition," Ron said abruptly, breaking the silence.

"Huh?" Hermione said.

"Dangling preposition. You ended your sentence with the word for. That's a preposition, and you're not supposed to end sentences with those," Ron said.

"I… well, actually, you're right," Hermione said, grinning sheepishly. "Maybe I'm spending too much time with you lot."

"Nah, couldn't be," Ron said. "We've only been together all day every day for months on end. I'm surprised we haven't all killed one another yet."

"Unless you pick up that chip sack, mate, I'd say we're going to get to that point sooner rather than later," Harry said.

"Duly noted," Ron said, picking up the paper sack and Vanishing it. "There, I've done my bit for the week."

Hermione and Harry each lobbed another cushion at him, and they laughed as the wind rushed through the trees overhead, making the branches clatter together as loudly as if they had been made of silver, gold, and diamonds. Inside the tent, Harry was still troubled, the fear of what would soon come never far from his mind, but as long as he had his friends with him, he wasn't too worried. At least, not yet.